There is an eagerness pulsing through Jake Ellenberger.
Beneath his Midwestern-bred good manners and crisp presentation that is undoubtedly a product of his time in the Marines, "The Juggernaut" has a beast within the begs to be released.
When he lets it go, devastation is sure to follow. And if there is any doubt lingering in your mind as to its savagery, Mike Pyle, Sean Pierson and Jake Shields certainly can validate, as all three were laid out on the canvas as the result. Those accomplishments and victories were all a part of a six-fight run that allowed him to finally breakthrough into the upper-tier of a stacked welterweight division, but those achievements aren't what is on his mind these days.
While letting his power go helped him establish his name, it was a fight where he didn't let much of anything fly that still isn't sitting right with him. Back in July, the Team Reign staple squared-off with rising Canadian talent Rory MacDonald in the main event of UFC on Fox 8 in Seattle, Wash. Over the course of the 15 minute affair, neither fighter found much success, but it was ultimately MacDonald's jab which earned him the unanimous decision on the judge's scorecards.
A combination of the defeat and his performance left the 28-year-old vexed as he was forced to face the reality of the situation. Months of preparation and knowing he had the tools to derail the Tristar product were solid buildups that a lackluster night in the cage brought crashing to the floor.
"Hindsight is always 20/20," Ellenberger told Bleacher Report. "I lost, and he was the the better man that night. Unfortunately, that's how it goes, and that is why winning is so gratifying. I would love to get another fight with Rory and get a rematch somewhere down the line. He's good at what he does. He has a good jab, and with coaches he has, they might play it a little safer than most, but he works effectively. If I had another chance to get in there with him, I would definitely go about it a much different way. I would be much more aggressive."
In their fight, MacDonald's style was able to nullify Ellenberger's power and attack, but the 24-year-old wasn't as fortunate in his most recent outing. "Ares" stepped in with a resurgent Robbie Lawler this past weekend at UFC 167, and after keeping "Ruthless" at bay for the first round-and-a-half, he fell victim to the American Top Team fighter's aggression.
After ringing MacDonald's bell with a few big shots in the second round, he put the British Columbia native on his back in the third with a crushing left hand. MacDonald regained his wits, survived and actually finished the round pounding away from the top, but the damage had been done, and Lawler pulled off the upset victory.
In watching the fight on Saturday, Ellenberger definitely saw where things could've gone differently in his fight with the rising prospect. That said, he also acknowledges how crisp the view is in 20/20 hindsight.
"I watched the fight and heard a few things Dana said after," Ellenberger said. "It's hard to comment on it, but some of the things he said were definitely true. To go even further, I was talking to Monte Cox, he manages [Robbie] Lawler as well, and he talked about how my fight with Rory showed them what to expect. You could even go as far to say it laid the blueprint."
"Rory is a smart fighter. That's one thing you can't knock him about. He's a smart fighter. He holds his composure very well, but at the same, he doesn't pull the trigger. You can be a great fighter, but you also have to make the fans excited to watch you compete. Nullifying your opponent's strengths is not going to do that. I can try to understand both sides of it, but unfortunately, my fight with him was very uneventful. There are definitely some things I need to address moving forward."
The next step on Ellenberger's road back to title contention will come against Tarec Saffiedine at Fight Night 34 in Singapore on Jan. 4. The Belgian striker is the last man to hold the Strikeforce welterweight title and will be making his official UFC debut when he steps in against the Nebraskan.
Where Ellenberger is a strong wrestler with put away power in both hands, Saffiedine is one of the best pure strikers in the 170-pound weight class. That is going to be present an interesting challenge for the California transplant, and it's one he's very much looking forward to.
"Tarec is a tough guy," Ellenberger said. "He's pretty well-rounded. I wouldn't say he has any large weaknesses. We have a lot of former coaches and people we've trained with in common. He trains with Dan Henderson and a lot of guys I've known for years. He's in the position he's in for a reason. He's a former world champion, and you can't take that away from him."
"Personally, I'm very excited to get back in there. I'm hungry and motivated. This division is constantly changing. This past weekend was a great example of how exciting the welterweight division is. Every time there is a big welterweight card, the rankings get shaken up. I have to focus on one thing right now, and that's Tarec, but I'm also going to take a lot of things from my last fight as well. I'll use those things to go forward and get back to fighting the way I used to, which is a lot more aggressive and not showing too much respect."
In addition to their main event tilt deciding who moves up the ladder and who will get reshuffled into the deck in the welterweight upper-tier, one of the more interesting story lines has to do with the proximity in which the two fighters live and train. A 45-minute drive separates Ellengerber's gym at Reign and Saffiedine's home at Team Quest, and despite the closeness of the two, they are flying to the other side of the world to throw down.
Both were in Singapore two weeks ago for a press conference to announce the fight card, and the Asian media got a kick out of the situation.
"We were doing the press conference over in Singapore, and a lot of the media over there were asking about where each of us trained and lived," Ellenberger laughed. "We explained that we live about 45 minutes apart and we are going to travel halfway around the world to fight, and everyone got a kick out of it. But it's an honor to be a part of this global UFC nation movement. It's kind of funny though. We could drive four hours to fight in Vegas, which is the fight capital of the world, but we are going to get on a plane and fly 20 hours to fight. That said, it's an honor to be a part of this global expansion of the UFC. I can't complain."
When Ellenberger steps in against Saffiedine, his eyes will be locked on securing the victory, but he's also very much aware of what a win at Fight Night 34 will do for him. At the current time, he's found success in eight of his 10 most recent showings and has been on the cusp of title contention multiple times during that stretch.
With champion Georges St-Pierre currently in a strange limbo of pseudo retirement, the door to the welterweight throne is wide open, and Ellenberger is going to give everything he has to fight his way to championship gold.
"You are always two wins away from a potential title fight or a No. 1 contender fight," Ellenberger said. "And trust me, I've been there so many times. It's easy for me to stay hungry and motivated because I've been on the edge so many times, and it's frustrating. There's no other way to put it. I've won six in a row and haven't fought for the title."
"For me, in my personal opinion, I don't think Georges is going to fight anymore. I think he's done, and that leaves a big door open. There are definitely a handful of guys that are going to be in that top echelon, but I can assure you there is no one who wants to be there more than I do. I'm excited to get back in there and start working my way back. Tarec is a very solid opponent and a former world champ, that means I have to acknowledge what he does well."
While Ellenberger has yet to fight for a title under the UFC banner, he's proven to do the one thing he believes is the most difficult thing to do in mixed martial arts, and that's to be consistent. If a fighter finds himself on the fortunate side of things, he can compete three times a year, and to find a high winning percentage in those bouts speaks volumes of the talent a fighter possesses.
Even more so, fighters who maintain their status in the upper-tier of a division as deep and competitive as the 170-pound collective prove they truly are in an elevated class. Where success can be found in various forms and fashion in other sports, MMA requires athletes to excel in numerous disciplines. And according to Ellenberger, that makes competing inside the Octagon the most difficult sport in the world to maintain a high win percentage.
"This sport is the hardest sport to be consistent at," Ellenberger said. "It really truly is. If you look at any other sport: football, basketball, hockey, whatever sport you want to name, if you have a bad night, you are going to play again the next night or in a couple of days. In this sport, so many variables and facets into one fight. So much time is invested in one fight, and if you have a bad night or have an injury, it has such a tremendous impact on the athlete more than any other sport I've seen."
"That being said, it's most definitely the hardest sport to be consistent at. In any other sport, you can be good at a few aspects of the game and that will get you by. In MMA, you have to be good at a lot of things. You can't be so-so to find consistent success. You have to be really good everywhere to get to the top. When you get to the top of the food chain, you are talking about a matter of inches now. Timing, footwork, speed, all those things play such a huge factor when you get to the top 10 fighters."
"You look at Georges situation too and if he does have distractions coming from the outside. They are always going to be there, and you have to deal with. There are always things going on outside of competition that are potentially going to be a distraction. MMA definitely has the most variables that go into competition."
"I know what it takes to get to the top, and I pride myself on being able to put it all together," he added. "I'm still developing as a fighter, and I'm eager to get back out there and show the adjustments I've made. It takes a lot to be consistent inside the cage, and I'm ready to get things back on track. That starts with Tarec in Singapore, and I'm very much looking forward to it."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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